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Movie Review

Joe Coughlin, the son of a tough Irish police officer, was like a lot of young men once: idealistic, optimistic, patriotic. Those virtues spurred him to enlist to fight in World War I.

What he witnessed transformed him. And not in a good way. "Rules are lies," he says. "They don't apply to those who make them." And so Joe returns from the so-called Great War determined to be one of those who makes the rules, not some powerless peon who must submit to them.

That means carving out a small-time criminal niche in Boston between its two perpetually warring kingpins: Albert White's Irish gang and Maso Pescatore's Italian mob. Joe's not really interested in being a "real" gangster. He doesn't want to kill anyone. He just wants to rob a few banks with his modest posse.

And after one last big job, he's heading West to California with his lover, Emma Gould.

But such "modest" plans aren't meant to be. The bank job goes badly, resulting in the deaths of several police officers during a car chase. And Emma, well, she's officially Albert White's girlfriend—and the gangster is none too pleased when he finds out about Joe's dalliances with her.

A horrible beating, a prison sentence and one dead girlfriend later, Joe undergoes yet another transformation. Again, not in a good way.

He's ready to be a real gangster now, determined to exact his revenge upon Albert White. The best way to achieve that goal? Teaming up with Pescatore, who soon deputizes Joe to run his Prohibition-era rum smuggling operation in Tampa, Florida.

Once Joe arrives in that hotbed of illegal activity, he fully embraces the role of the brutal mob boss he never really wanted to be … even as he encounters two very different women who poke and prod at what's left of his bullet-riddled conscience.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

Like many gangster films, Live by Night aspires to be a dark morality tale. Whether or not it accomplishes that goal is debatable.

Joe becomes almost as merciless as the men he once said he didn't want to emulate, casually killing those who get in his way. That said, the Cuban woman who eventually becomes his wife, Graciela, believes there's a spark of goodness within the man she loves. She questions whether he has the cruelty to be a mob boss; her influence has a softening effect. The birth of their son prompts Joe to try to get out of the kingpin business.

But that's easier said than done. Joe's Irish police officer father, Thomas, once told him, "What you put out in the world will always come back to you." And so Joe reaps violent tragedy from the violence he's sown. That's not good, obviously, but the moral of the film implies that Joe has indeed had to pay a price for his immoral choices. In the end, he's chastened and burdened with the awful consequences of his violent vocation.

All that said, however, Joe does exhibit moral restraint in two areas: He refuses to sells drugs or run prostitution rings, which Pescatore tells him could have made the gang more money.

Joe's dad has tried his best to help his son embrace something other than a life of crime. He knows of Joe's misdeeds and is disgusted by them. He wants to hold Joe accountable, yet he also has compassion for his son. Two other sympathetic fathers in the film are likewise shown to be simultaneously loving yet unable to protect their families from awful things that befall them.

Spiritual Content

Joe's from a Catholic family. And even though he says he hasn't been to church in years, he does have a flicker of a conscience. After having Joe beaten nearly to death, Albert White spits, "You spend your life hoping someone will punish you for your sins. Well here I am."

The movie unexpectedly expands this theme in its last third. Joe is set to open a huge casino near Tampa. But the daughter of the local sheriff, a very young woman named Loretta, has recently returned from California after a failed stint as an actress and become a fire-and-brimstone preacher instead. Loretta is fiercely against gambling, and her old-fashioned "turn or burn" big-tent revivals turn the public at large against Joe's casino plans.

Loretta, it turns out, had been horrifically preyed upon sexually when she was in California. (Joe somehow procures nude pictures of her and uses them to blackmail her father, Tampa's sheriff.) She'd gotten addicted to heroin as well. Loretta repeatedly shows her heroin needle scars during revival services, which she treats as something almost like stigmata and which she uses as evidence of her radical repentance. Pescatore wants Joe to kill her, but he refuses to do so because, the film suggests, he likes the young woman and respects her moral purity—something he utterly lacks.

A disturbing scene depicts Loretta's father whipping her with a switch as punishment for her sin. The knowledge of Loretta's sexual sin essentially drives the sheriff mad. Loretta says that he just walks around the house mumbling, "Repent! Repent!"

Loretta and Joe share a scene at a diner where she reveals her doubts about her faith. She's clearly full of self-contempt, saying, "We're all going to hell." (Joe doesn't think she is.) She also confesses to Joe, "I don't know if there is a God. But I hope there is. And I hope He's kind. That'd be swell." In the face of such doubts, she tells Joe that she's learned to think of the present moment as the best one there is. "This is heaven. Right here." Someone else says, "We're not God's children."

Loretta's father eventually attacks Joe's family with a gun, screaming, "Repent! Repent! Repent!" We also see him sitting, holding a Bible and weeping, again whispering "repent" over and over again. Elsewhere, we see a picture of Jesus, a statue perhaps of Mary and a cross.

Jews are mentioned in passing, and they seem to be universally despised by almost every other ethnic or religious group. A group of violent, racist KKK members justify their prejudice by invoking God. One of them threatens to "rain bloody hellfire down" on Joe. We hear multiple references to "the demon rum."

Sexual Content

Several scenes depict two different couples having sex. In each, we see explicit movements and ecstatic facial expression, but the participants are either clothed or covered. One scene shows a couple removing clothes, but there's no nudity.

We see a still picture of a topless woman. Another still image, which is only briefly visible, seems to show two naked women embracing. Another scene pictures women dancing sensually in revealing outfits. Multiple characters decry "fornication," especially when it involves people from two different races.

Joe has an opportunity to reconnect sexually with an old flame late in the film, but he resists that temptation. It's possible she's working as a prostitute (we see her and other women surrounded by men who look like paying customers).

Joe's father blackmails the chief inspector in his police department, reducing Joe's sentence from life to just three years. He does so by producing pictures of the man with another man, and he threatens to make the secret homosexual dalliance known.

Violent Content

Live by Night is a gangster movie. Accordingly, the body count is high, with pistols and Tommy guns taking out many, many characters—nameless, faceless lackeys and primary ones, too. Multiple people are killed execution style at point-blank range as the camera looks on. A man plunges out a window to land with a sickening, pulpy thud on the concrete several stories below. Police officers are killed in cars that collide, crash, and explode. KKK members repeatedly stir up violent trouble, killing people they disagree with and placing a flaming cross outside a speakeasy frequented by other races. A gangster makes a crude, graphic threat pertaining to a woman's anatomy.

Joe finds himself savagely beaten by Albert White's goons. They pummel him repeatedly with fists and feet. Albert finishes the brutality with a wicked kick to Joe's crotch that causes him to vomit. Joe's then turned over to the police; they also beat him with billy clubs for having caused the deaths of several officers. Joe is hospitalized, and a doctor says that there will be "blood in the bowl" for a long time.

Early on, we see images of dead soldiers on the battlefield during World War I. A newspaper article says that Loretta has committed suicide by cutting her own throat.

Crude or Profane Language

Nearly 60 f-words (one paired with "mother"). About 20 s-words. God's name is taken in vain four or five times (including once with "d--n"). The racial slur "n-gger" is used about half a dozen times. Other vulgarities include "a--hole," "d--n" and "h---." Women are repeatedly labeled "whores."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Rum is referenced throughout the film, and that alcoholic concoction is a speakeasy staple. Beer is imbibed too. Various characters smoke, both cigarettes and cigars. One scene takes place in a cigar-rolling plant.

As mentioned, Loretta talks about being addicted to heroin and repeatedly shows the scars that injecting it left on her arms. It's implied that the sale of other illegal drugs is a part of Pescatore's business operations elsewhere.

Other Negative Elements

Betrayals are wrapped in betrayals and even deeper betrayals here, with friends and partners in crime repeatedly shifting alliances. There's also deception and robbery.

Joe and his gang want to legalize gambling, as they believe it can be a huge revenue stream for Pescatore's operation. We see a small group of men playing high-stakes poker.

Police corruption is implied, and even the best officers—both in Boston and in Tampa—look past some criminal activity. It's said that the mob exerts significant influence over the legal system.

Various racial slurs for blacks, Italians, Hispanics, Catholics and Jews are spit repeatedly.


Live by Night is the latest effort from Ben Affleck. He wrote the adapted screenplay (based on a novel by Dennis Lehane). He co-produced it. He directed it. He stars in it. Obviously, this film means a lot to Ben Affleck.

But what does it actually mean? Affleck probably had something in mind. But a clear moral in this stereotypically brutal gangster flick is hard to pin down with certainty.

I think we're supposed to see Joe Coughlin, as a good guy who goes bad, then tries to come back to something good. But his misdeeds mean that it's not quite so simple. Joe has sown violence, and that means reaping a life of peace is nearly impossible.

I suppose that moral is in there. But for 98% of this movie, Ben Affleck's character is a heartless, selfish monster. The fact that he's slightly less monstrous than his enemies doesn't make him any less culpable … or any more likable. And all that is complicated further by the film's seeming screed against Christianity.

The last lines in the film come from Joe as he repeats Loretta's words to his son: "This is heaven. Right here. We're in it now." Never mind that Joe's life—and the movie in which we watch it unfold—have been anything but heavenly.

Pro-social Content

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Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

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Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin; Brendan Gleeson as Thomas Coughlin; Robert Glenister as Albert White; Remo Girone as Maso Pescatore; Chris Messina as Dion Bartolo; Sienna Miller as Emma Gould; Zoe Saldana as Graciela; Miguel as Esteban Suarez; Chris Cooper as Chief Figgis; Elle Fanning as Loretta Figgis; Matthew Maher as R.D. Pruitt; Max Casella as Digger Pescatore


Ben Affleck ( )


Warner Bros.



Record Label



In Theaters

January 13, 2017

On Video

March 21, 2017

Year Published



Adam R. Holz

Content Caution

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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